CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy -- Benedict XVI left the Catholic Church in unprecedented limbo Thursday as he became the first pope in 600 years to resign, capping a tearful day of farewells that included an extraordinary pledge of obedience to his successor.
As bells tolled, two Swiss Guards standing at attention at the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo shut the thick wooden doors shortly after 8 p.m., symbolically closing out a papacy whose legacy will be most marked by the way it ended -- a resignation instead of a death.
Benedict, who will spend his first two months of retirement inside the palace walls, leaves behind an eight-year term shaped by struggles to move the church beyond clerical sex abuse scandals and to reawaken Christianity in an indifferent world -- efforts his successor will now have to take up.
For the time being, governance of the church shifts to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the camerlengo, or chamberlain, who along with the College of Cardinals will guide the church and make plans for the conclave to elect the 266th leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
On Benedict's last day, the mood was vastly different inside the Vatican than at Castel Gandolfo. At the seat of the popes, Benedict's staff tearfully bade the pontiff goodbye in scenes of dignified solemnity.
A livelier atmosphere reigned in the countryside, with well-wishers jamming the hilltop town's main square shouting "Viva il Papa!" (Long live the pope!) and waving the yellow and white flags of the Holy See.
"I am simply a pilgrim beginning the last leg of his pilgrimage on this Earth," Benedict told the cheering crowd in his final public words as pope.
Benedict's successor is likely to follow in his footsteps given that the majority of the 115 cardinals who will elect the next pope were appointed by Benedict.
Benedict's journey into retirement began with a final audience with his cardinals, where he sought to defuse concerns about his future role and possible conflicts arising from the peculiar situation of having a reigning pope and a retired one living side-by-side inside the Vatican.
"Among you is also the future pope, whom I today promise my unconditional reverence and obedience," Benedict told the cardinals.
Benedict gave a final set of instructions to the "princes" of the church who will elect his successor, urging them to be united as they huddle to choose the next pope.
"May the College of Cardinals work like an orchestra, where diversity -- an expression of the universal church -- always works toward a higher and harmonious agreement," he said.
The papal contendersCOMBINED NEWS SERVICES
The 115 cardinals of the Catholic Church younger than age 80 will meet next week to set a date for the secret election for a new pope known as the conclave. The vote, carried out in the Sistine Chapel beneath Michelangelo's fresco of God breathing life into Adam, will likely begin before March 15.
Here are possible contenders:
Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, archbishop of Vienna
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of Vatican's culture office
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana, head of the Vatican's justice and peace office FROM LATIN AMERICA:
Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paulo
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina
FROM NORTH AMERICA:
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York
Cardinal Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila
His final tweet
The final tweet from the first pope with his own Twitter account: "Thank you for your love and support. May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the center of your lives."
Not long after he sent it, all of Benedict's tweets were deleted.